LIBBY — Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 8, owes part of its genesis to a computer engineer who grew up in Libby.
“Computing levels the world. It makes the world smaller,” Sam Moreau said. “The fact that a kid from a small town can make the world a better place is my motivating factor.”
Moreau, a handsome father of two, is anything but a geek. He’s an avid sports fan who grew up playing football and basketball for the Libby Loggers. He did all right in high school. And then he dropped out of college to take care of his ailing mother.
But a lot of hard work, a plane ticket to the Bay Area and a fortuitous encounter with a Stanford professor led to a high-powered career engineering computer programs for tech giants Yahoo and Microsoft.
At 42, Moreau has amassed an impressive résumé that includes designing Yahoo Fantasy Football and engineering Windows 8.
He currently serves as the director of user experience for Windows, Windows Live and Internet Explorer.
Moreau was the fourth of nine children in his family. His mother, Joy, and his father, Wally, owned Joy’s Lounge in The Venture Inn while raising their children.
Moreau’s former basketball coach, Rik Rewerts, remembers a student who was heavily involved in social activities during high school.
“He was a nice, fun-loving kid,” said Rewerts, now the principal at Libby High School. “But school didn’t seem to be super-important to him.”
His old friend Scott Beagle remembers being a wide receiver and point guard with Moreau in high school and rooming with him in college.
“He was very intelligent but didn’t always do so well in school,” Beagle said. “He had a gift for dreaming, the knack for thinking outside the box.”
During Moreau’s third year at Montana State University, he moved back to Libby to take care of his mother, who was battling cancer. When she died, Moreau decided to follow her advice and see the world while he was young.
A friend drove Moreau to Spokane, where he boarded a plane with a one-way ticket to San Francisco. It was his first time flying, and he wasn’t sure what he’d do for work when he arrived.
A short time later, he stumbled into Palo Alto, where he met a professor from Stanford’s geophysics department.
“He asked if I knew how to use computers,” Moreau said. “I did, and I was in. I started making web pages for Stanford.”
Moreau first developed his computer skills in Libby.
Bill Chalgren, who taught at Libby High School for 36 years, oversaw a computer class in the late 1980s that was far ahead of its time. He taught students to understand the structure of the machines themselves so they could learn to program and design using files structures, word processing and spreadsheets.
Essentially, that’s what computer science students learn today — except Chalgren was teaching a rudimentary version of it 25 years ago.
Chalgren, now an adjunct mathematics professor at Flathead Community College, said Moreau was one of several of his students who went to work in the tech industry.
“They learned how to solve problems and think,” Chalgren said. “It was not just rote memorization, but problem solving.”
Chalgren remembers Moreau among a group of students who often spent time in the computer room during evenings after athletic practices.
“I had other Moreaus in class, so I knew what to expect,” Chalgren said. “He was one of many, many young men who was a pleasure to have in class.”
Going from country boy in Libby to web programmer in the Silicon Valley was the single biggest transition of Moreau’s career. His skills at Stanford led to a job with a tech-bubble, web-portal company called Excite@Home, and from there he went to work for Yahoo.
“Then Microsoft called, and I moved to Seattle,” Moreau said.
Moreau now lives in Bellevue, Wash., with his wife, Darci, a 10-year-old son Silas and an 8-year-old daughter Joy, who was named after her grandmother.
Moreau holds one of Microsoft’s more public jobs, which also makes it arguably one of the toughest.
After the much-maligned Windows Vista proved unpopular on the tech stage, Microsoft came to the hard conclusion that it had an image problem. Windows was known as the sterile operating system of boring people, while the Macintosh/Apple operating system had a reputation as the trendy choice for young, computer-savvy people.
Windows 7 had some success, but Microsoft knew it could do better.
Moreau’s Windows 8 sought to change all that. He spent five years redesigning the Windows operating system, the standard PC format that will be used worldwide for the foreseeable future.
Easy to pick up and use, the design launched last October to mixed reviews. Some thought it went away from what made Microsoft great in the first place. Others, like The Verge, a tech-news website, heralded Windows 8 as the operating system that made Macintosh/Apple products obsolete.
Either way, Moreau is understandably proud of his product — not to overshadow the full design team of more than 100 people — and hopes it will help someone, somewhere learn to use a computer more easily.
“I always appreciated the blue-collar work ethic I got in Libby,” Moreau said. “I just want to put computing in people’s hands.”